The Girl, wr. 1939, pb. 1978
Winter Prairie Woman, 1990
The Dread Road, 1991
Harvest: Collected Stories, 1977
I Hear Men Talking: Stories of the Early Decades, 1984, revised 2001
Women on the Breadlines, 1984
Rites of Ancient Ripening, 1975
“Women on the Breadlines,” 1932
“I Was Marching,” 1934
“The Fetish of Being Outside,” 1935
North Star Country, 1945
Crusaders: The Radical Legacy of Marian and Arthur Le Sueur, 1955
Children’s/Young Adult Literature:
Little Brother of the Wilderness: The Story of Johnny Appleseed, 1947
Nancy Hanks of Wilderness Road: A Story of Abraham Lincoln’s Mother, 1949
Sparrow Hawk, 1950
Chanticleer of Wilderness Road: A Story of Davy Crockett, 1951
The River Road: A Story of Abraham Lincoln, 1954
Salute to Spring, 1940
The People Together, 1956
Songs for My Time, 1977
Ripening: Selected Work, 1927-1980, 1982
Harvest Song: Collected Essays and Stories, 1990
The work of Meridel Le Sueur (leh SOOR)–like two of her favorite images, Persephone and corn–has experienced the rebirth of spring after the seemingly dead, unappreciative time of the Cold War years. An influential and active writer of the radical 1930’s, Le Sueur became the object of revived interest in the activist 1960’s and 1970’s.
Born to middle-class parents in the Midwest, Le Sueur did not experience a routine childhood. Her mother, Marian Wharton–as her puritanical but atypical mother had done before her–divorced her drunken husband when Meridel was ten years old. Fleeing the strict custody laws of Texas for Oklahoma and eventually Kansas, Marian lectured about women’s rights and became head of the English Department at the People’s College, where she met and married Meridel’s stepfather, Arthur Le Sueur, a lawyer who represented workers. Together they edited the college magazine and wrote a proletariat-based grammar text; Meridel’s radical leanings can easily be traced to their influence. Pride in her activist parents is revealed in her book Crusaders, published during the Red Scare period of the 1950’s; Le Sueur called the work an “antidote to fear.”
Ostracized by her classmates for her parents’ socialist leanings and friends, Le Sueur eventually dropped out of the St. Paul school system. (Her parents had moved to Minnesota after vigilantes burned the People’s College, enraged by college personnel’s opposition to the United States’ entering World War I.) She went to Chicago and New York to pursue an education in dance and drama, eventually struggling for work in Hollywood as an extra and stuntwoman from 1922 to 1928. After an unsuccessful attempt at suicide, she decided to reaffirm life. Her short story “Annunciation” is about the present she decided to bestow upon a war-torn world: her first pregnancy.
Her daughter Rachel was born in 1928, with a second, Deborah, following less than two years later. Her nontraditional husband was not a large part of his family’s lives, and he left a few years after the girls’ births. Another highlight of Le Sueur’s years in California had involved her joining the Communist Party in 1924 and beginning to publish regularly in party magazines. The Communist Party discouraged activist women from having children, as it might disrupt the mothers’ work, but Le Sueur saw bearing and rearing children as a rebirth, a positive act. This philosophy is evident in much of her work, including The Girl, in which the poor women living together in a collective home find promise in the girl’s pregnancy and the arrival of her daughter at the novel’s end. Eventually disillusioned with Hollywood after being asked to have cosmetic surgery to alter her “Semitic” nose, Le Sueur left to pursue a more active writing career.
The 1930’s proved to be satisfying for Le Sueur professionally. Much of her previous work was reprinted, and she produced new fiction, poetry, and “reportage” (journalism with an unapologetic political leaning). She also maintained her lifelong habit of writing daily journal entries. She was active in many Communist Party groups, including John Reed clubs and the Workers’ Alliance. She also wrote for the New Deal Federal Writers Project. She interviewed hundreds of unemployed people; she particularly recorded the suffering of the women; “Women on the Breadlines” was the first reportage of these anguished unemployed workers. The publication of a collection of her stories and reportage, Salute to Spring, in 1940 marked the high point of her career.
The next twenty-five years saw a dramatic decline in support for Le Sueur’s work. Because of her radical politics, she was blacklisted, and publishers (except those few unashamedly associated with communism) refused to give her an audience. The sole exception was Alfred Knopf, who agreed to publish her children’s books. Eventually her means of support dried up; her boardinghouse was under constant FBI surveillance, and students of her creative writing classes were harassed. She took several menial jobs and continued to interview and record the stories of people she met as she worked and rode buses around the Midwest.
The 1960’s finally brought relief from the oppressive political climate, and the rise of the feminist movement in the 1970’s brought new interest in Le Sueur and her work. Much of her writing was republished, and Le Sueur, in her seventies, pursued many new projects. Her interest in Native American customs led to environmentally aware pieces, and her fictional style underwent experimental changes. Le Sueur continued to lecture and grant interviews well into her nineties.